There’s a glaring blind spot in the art world …

    The theme of the 60th Venice Biennale, announced in neon signs scattered about the venues, is Stranieri Ovunque — in English, “Foreigners Everywhere”. Some have complained that it can be misinterpreted as a fascist rallying cry. Which is obviously true. We live in angsty, bellicose, territorially fluid times. And the world’s most significant art event is investigating them with a trademark mix of blindness, delusion and anger.

    Among the more moving exhibits is a set of video maps by the Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili in which assorted refugees from north Africa trace the perilous journeys they have made to Europe in search of a better life. The routes are drawn crudely on the maps with a felt tip. The disembodied voices of the voyagers describe the difficulties. One refugee tells us how it took him five years of travel and shipwrecks to reach a destination at which he could pause.

    Perhaps he was one of the guys serving bucketloads of prosecco to the conflicted guests at the sumptuous British pavilion party. Or the one humping art materials over all those bridges on the way to the Nigerian pavilion. Thunderously lacking in self-awareness, the international art world fails to recognise itself in any of the accusations thrown around here at everyone else.

    At the main biennale venue, the Giardini, the national pavilions dotted round the park have dutifully followed the thematic promptings of the organisers, and generally done it rather well. As an opening stretch, the list of nations that runs from Spain to Holland, from Scandinavia to Japan, is unusually fruitful. “Foreigners Everywhere” is clearly a theme that resonates.

    As always, the Germans seem to carry the weight of their dark 20th-century history on their shoulders. Somebody needs to give them a hug and tell them the Second World War really is over. Inside a grubby industrial mock-up a crowd of dusty actors tell the story of an anonymous foreign worker who arrived in Germany to labour for the asbestos industry, and stayed till it killed him. This being the German pavilion, he gets to strip naked before his big symbolic death, and as he stood there hypnotising us with the rhythmic swinging of his impressive Teutonic dong he reminded me of Dürer’s marvellous self-portrait as a naked old man.

    At the British pavilion the sadness continues with John Akomfrah’s multiscreen rumination on the rising floodwaters of the world and the role played by the sea in the fate of humankind. It’s a gentle, poetic display, distinguished by beautiful cinematography and a haunting soundtrack of bubbling waters and evocative echoes. I found myself lured into biblical thoughts about Noah’s flood and divine punishment. Unfortunately, Akomfrah’s poetic message is conveyed on scores of electronic monitors that chomp their way through significant amounts of electricity. It’s the recurring dilemma of multiscreen art: where to put the wind turbines?

    So far, so predictable. Where the biennale gets exciting is in the places it steps off the rails. The Swiss pavilion, a regular dud at this event, has managed to work itself up into frenzied brilliance by picking the excitable Brazilian-Swiss artist Guerreiro do Divino Amor to trash his new homeland by comparing it with ancient Rome. Appending several extra breasts to the glistening torso of a topless trans performer, in imitation of the Roman she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus, Divino Amor lays furiously into every aspect of Swiss life: the finishing schools, the neutrality, the banks. Has any national pavilion at the biennale ever heaped this much opprobrium on itself?

    What’s telling is how the artist has weaponised colour in his attack on dull, grey Switzerland. It turns out to be a biennale-wide strategy. In the American pavilion Jeffrey Gibson, “an American Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee painter and sculptor”, presents a dizzyingly bright show of beads and patterns described in the paperwork as a deliberate attack on the “chromophobia” of western modernism.

    All over the biennale there are contrasts to be noticed between the black-clad Armani monks of the art world and the loud, bright, direct art that packs the noisy pavilions of Cameroon, Nigeria and Benin. The war of colours is among the fiercest of the wars raging at the biennale. Western reserve, it appears, is so yesterday.

    That said, the best of the colonialist-bashing venues, the Egyptian pavilion, is one of the more subfusc. In a moody twilight multi-talented Wael Shawky — dramatist, composer, choreographer, sculptor — tells the story of the British in Egypt in 1882 and a native rebellion put down brutally. In a delicious touch, Shawky’s note-perfect stage show feels like a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan. Catchy music. Stylised settings. Brilliant choreography.

    Shawky was born in Egypt but has lived most of his life in the West. It’s an artistic past repeated throughout the biennale. The Nigerian pavilion has eight artists, four of whom live in America, two in London, one in Canada. Adriano Pedrosa, the director of the entire event, was born in Brazil but studied critical writing at the California Institute of the Arts. If we are looking for reasons why there is an international homogeneity to contemporary art — why the Swiss pavilion, the British pavilion, the Egyptian pavilion share a default video approach — it is because America and Britain have educated the entire global art world in their preferred aesthetics.

    It’s a point made accidentally again in the biennale’s agenda-setting main show, curated by the California-educated Pedrosa, where a giant cast of forgotten painters from the global south, almost none of whom has appeared at the biennale before, have finally been given a day in the sun. They date from the 1930s to the 1980s. All are painters (the biennale is noticeably short of sculpture). All had careers that were lost down the back of the sofa when western modernism triumphed.

    Remembering these forgotten foreigners is a nice gesture, but it slows the event to historic pace and results in a shortage of excitement. None of the rediscovered Singaporeans or Paraguayans or Indians blows us away. And their recurring international reliance on Picasso as a model means that here too we seem mostly to be watching a process of western colonisation. Today we have international film and video. Then, we had internationally bad Picasso.

    As a reaction to those kinds of worries the 60th Biennale has also collected a sizeable number of indigenous artists to come to Venice and confront us with their otherness. They form a gang of equatorial L S Lowrys who paint busy little village scenes filled with matchstick locals and foreign boats arriving on distant sea shores.

    I lost count, too, of the number of topless shamans scattered around the event, chanting shinily. At the Brazilian pavilion they could be seen round the back changing out of their tracksuits and into their macaw-feathered ritual cloaks for a noisy tribal performance. It felt shallow and culturally touristic: the continued collection of exotic specimens masquerading as a widening of art’s non-western spectrum.

    Among the quieter pavilions I was much taken by Canada’s, where Kapwani Kiwanga has created a gorgeous abstract installation from seven million glass beads manufactured in the nearby glass capital of Murano. All were sourced globally from historic locations. Every bead has a past.

    Thus issues of trade and travel, the role of the sea, the influence of the West, are raised gently and inventively at a biennale full of journeys, shifts and transitions. At heart it’s a well-meaning event. With plenty of good moments. But, like Venice itself, it has trouble feeling solid.

    The 60th Venice Biennale continues until November 24